It is very difficult for me to throw out things that evoke memories or stories, and so, over the last 30 years, I have amassed a collection of my students' writing and art. Recently, I came upon a portfolio of pastels done by children in my first public school class in 1962. There was Sara's delicate copy of a Modigliani portrait, done in browns and oranges; a blue and white drawing of Moby Dick jumping out of the sea, done by Hugh Lee on black construction paper; a hand with an evil eye, drawn by Carlos M.; and Gloria's frightening lion's face with knife slashes all over it, whose title, "All Cut Up,'' is written in red crayon over the pastel.
I remember buying the pastels for my class and letting the students draw, paint, or sketch all afternoon. They could also play chess, dominoes, and checkers, read with me, write poems and books, or listen to music and build clay models if they cared to. Those afternoon activities were my way of warding off chaos and, at the same time, getting to know and occasionally help my students personally. It took me awhile to realize that these activities were not diversions but at the center of decent education. No one in the school seemed to mind, since my students stayed in the room, and we left everything clean and neat at the end of the day.
However, the pastels got me into trouble. About two months into the semester, I got a visit from the district art coordinator, to whom I proudly showed off my students' work. Instead of being encouraged, I was given a copy of the district manual, which described the art curriculum and showed that pastels were a 6th grade medium. Since my students were in the 5th grade, I was instructed to get rid of both the pastels and the students' work in that medium. I objected and pointed out that the top class in the 5th grade had pastels and used them all the time. The response was that "those'' students read above grade level and therefore deserved an advanced art medium, whereas my students read below grade level and therefore weren't qualified for pastels.
I didn't know whether to laugh or argue--it was too absurd. Fortunately, the assistant principal, who was more accustomed to the bizarre ways of the school hierarchy, joined us before I could respond. She told the art coordinator that I was a young teacher and that she would take care of everything. Before I left school that day, she called me into her office and gave me advice for surviving within an irrational system. She knew I would not get rid of the pastels, so she suggested I read the curriculum manuals in order to know when I was violating them and thus to know how to make everything look kosher before a supervisor's visit. She also promised to give me adequate warning so I could continue to do what I felt was best for the children and still look good to the district supervisors. That way, she wouldn't get in trouble. In effect, she gave me a way to resist adjusting to unreasonable demands and initiated me into the subversion of the system that most good teachers practice all the time.
That was my first encounter with the choice between conforming to the demands of the system or meeting the needs of my students. It was a lesson in what I have come to call "maladjustment.'' Sometime in the mid1960s, I encountered the concept of maladjustment in a speech that Martin Luther King Jr. had given at the University of California at Berkeley, in May 1958. In it, he said:
Modern psychology has a word that is probably used more than any other word. It is the word "maladjusted.'' Now we all should seek to live a well-adjusted life in order to avoid neurotic and schizophrenic personalities. But there are some things within our social order to which I am proud to be maladjusted and to which I call upon you to be maladjusted. I never intend to adjust myself to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to adjust myself to mob rule. I never intend to adjust myself to the tragic effects of the methods of physical violence and to tragic militarism. I call upon you to be maladjusted to such things.
In retrospect, my experience with pastels, in a small way, represented the same major struggles that Dr. King referred to--issues of privilege and racism. The "good'' students at the school were white and upper middle class and identified as "gifted.'' They were given privileges and resources that my students, who were mostly poor and predominantly Puerto Rican, were denied--resources such as pastels and reading books that could be used equally well by both groups. I refused to adjust myself to that inequity.
Adjustment is not to be abandoned lightly. It is wonderful to be able to fit comfortably within a family, at work, in culture, or in society. Here, from a book titled Mental Hygiene in Teaching, by Fritz Redl and William Wattenberg, is the clearest definition of "adjustment'' I have been able to find:
As a beginning definition, we can say that "adjustment'' means "the ability of an individual to live harmoniously with his environment--physical, social, intellectual, and moral--and with himself, keeping intact his personal integrity.''...Adjustment is not an end in itself; rather, it is a description of the relation between an individual and...(his or her)...environment.
When it is impossible to remain in harmony with one's environment without giving up deeply held moral values, creative maladjustment becomes a sane alternative to giving up altogether. Creative maladjustment consists of breaking social patterns that are morally reprehensible, taking conscious control of one's place in the environment, and readjusting the world one lives in based on personal integrity and honesty--that is, it consists of learning to survive with minimal moral and personal compromise in a thoroughly compromised world and of not being afraid of planned and willed conflict, if necessary. It also means searching for ways of not being alone in a society where the mythology of individualism negates integrity and leads to isolation and selfmutilation. It means small everyday acts of maladjustment as well as occasional major reconstruction, and it requires will, determination, faith that people can be wonderful, conscious planning, and an unshakable sense of humor.
Creative maladjustment is reflective. It implies adapting your own particular maladjustment to the nature of the social systems that you find repressive. It also implies learning how other people are affected by those systems, how personal discontent can be appropriately turned into moral and political action, and how to speak out about the violence that thoughtless adjustment can cause or perpetuate.
Sometimes decisions to maladjust are made without thought and can lead to trouble. Such trouble befell me twice at the beginning of my teaching career. During my six weeks of student teaching, I got into trouble for trying things that clashed with the style and practice of my supervising teacher. I was accused of getting too close to the students, of being too informal, and of replacing structured learning activities with open-ended, cross-disciplinary projects. When I was asked to do things that in my judgment were detrimental to student learning and selfrespect, I changed them without asking permission. This maladjustment made sense in terms of maintaining my integrity and helping students, but it was suicide for a student teacher who didn't have his own classroom and who had no status within the school. Two weeks before the end of my student-teaching assignment, I was unceremoniously terminated by the supervising teacher and ordered out of the school by the principal.
It was my luck to have a wonderful, progressive educator as my supervisor at Columbia University's Teachers College. She made it clear that I had acted foolishly and reminded me that if I wanted to teach and change the schools, I had to get a credential first. Then she placed me in another school for two weeks, enabling me to fulfill my studentteaching requirement. This was not formally legal, but she knew how to creatively maladjust within the framework of Teachers College; moreover, she had the power and experience to act within the institution counter to its own rules. Her planned creative maladjustment worked. My unthinking maladjustment failed.
The same thing happened during my first teaching assignment. Pastels were just a part of the problem. I also spoke out about other inequities at the school during faculty and union meetings and was involuntarily transferred to another school at the end of my first semester. At that time, my maladjustment was neither creative nor effective, and I continue to wonder how much more useful I might have been to the school and the community had my responses been more tempered and my maladjustment better thought-out.
However, as a beginning teacher I found myself with too much to learn, too little support, and an inflated sense of how much reform I could accomplish by myself without having experience or friends and allies within the community or the school district. I did learn one lesson that semester, though, and it has been at the center of my educational thinking and practice for the last 30 years. As I mentioned, most of my students were Puerto Rican, and almost all of them spoke Spanish as a first language. Back then the official policy of the New York City Board of Education forbade Spanish to be spoken in the classroom. I didn't speak Spanish, though I knew enough French and Italian to make occasional good guesses at what my students were saying. I also didn't have enough confidence or experience to know how to question that policy intelligently.
At that time, teachers were obliged to evaluate the linguistic and intellectual skills of all children in English and to determine their ability to read and do arithmetic. It should hardly have been a surprise that the test results indicated that the children's math skills were better than their reading skills. Based on this information, a number of researchers drew various conclusions, such as that Spanish-speaking children have better abstract abilities than linguistic ones, that children learn arithmetic independently of their language skills, and so on. However, the researchers neglected (or were ignorant of) one key point in their analysis of the situation: Almost all of the children who did well in arithmetic performed equally well at reading Spanish. I discovered this by accident. One day, I happened to bring to school a book that had a quotation from Garcia Lorca's Poeta en Nueva York, in Spanish, and one of the boys who was unable to read English read the Spanish selection with ease and translated it for me. It was obvious that the attempt to measure his linguistic skills solely through the evaluation of his ability to read and write in English was irrational and cruel.
The same student, Vincente, was a problem in class and a delight before and after school. In class, he would fidget and bother other kids. He looked like a tightly wound spring, ready to release and jump through a door, window, or wall. However, when I ran into Vincente on the street or at the small restaurant his parents ran, he was charming and showed an incredible awareness of current political and social events. His parents were troubled by his school history. They told me that he had been on the mainland for three years and had done very poorly in school, though he had been a top student in Puerto Rico. They thought maybe it was a matter of language, but they said the teachers in Puerto Rico cared much more and gave the students much more respect.
I liked Vincente and came to appreciate his intelligence and sensitivity, but he acted nuts in class, performed for the other students, and caused me as much grief as he could. His was the lowermost class in the grade, and all of the students had experienced the humiliation of failure. Their integrity was violated by the institution. Some, like Vincente, decided to get even with the system even though they hurt themselves more than they hurt their teachers or the system.
I was in my early 20s at the time and very inexperienced. I never figured out how to help Vincente, but, through knowing him and several other youngsters in the class outside of school and becoming friends with their parents, I came to understand that children in school act in ways that are shaped by the institution; therefore it is essential never to judge a child by her or his school behavior.
I had to maladjust myself to the notion that the demands and structure of schooling were normal and the students were problems if they did not adjust. This meant examining the nature of the life I was expected to lead as a teacher and sorting out what was sensible and beneficial to my students from procedures meant simply to keep things under control. It meant learning to recognize practices and texts that were racist or sexist, as well as coming to understand the mechanisms for tolerating professional incompetence and for marginalizing children who are outspoken or different. This had to be done while I was figuring out how to teach well, and I had to be creative about it if I wanted to keep my job. I had to develop skills of creative maladjustment and integrate into every aspect of my teaching the idea that school was not always worth adjusting to and that my students were often right to resist the education being forced upon them.
For me, an understanding of the need for creative maladjustment is not a rejection of public education but an affirmation of its possibilities. It is part of what I subsequently learned has been a long struggle to make public education work for all children. The biggest problems are not with public education itself but with the attitude that, inasmuch as many public schools don't work, public education should be abandoned and that because many students are not currently learning, they can't learn. It is our job as educators to make schools work, and that requires taking up the struggle, within the system, to transform them. Dr. King, throughout his life, strived to make democracy work, not to abandon democracy altogether because it wasn't yet working.
Over the years, I have learned how to analyze schools and have tried to figure out their effects on children's behavior rather than judge children by that behavior. This maladjustment has allowed me to reach many children who otherwise would have been remote and hostile. It has also allowed me to shape my teaching by attending to the interaction between the culture of the schools and the larger social, cultural, and economic lives of the children, rather than responding to students' present or past school performance and behavior.
The word "performance'' is used in educational circles to indicate test scores and behavior; but for me, it is part of an apt and useful theater metaphor. Children are on stage at school, and the teacher is only one of several audiences. Other students, parents, and people in the community are also audiences. Each student faces the simultaneous task of winning the acceptance of each of these audiences while maintaining personal and moral integrity. The construction of a school character is a complex matter with a great deal at stake. Unfortunately, schools often simplify the script and divide youngsters into good/bad, normal/abnormal, intelligent/dumb, and high/low potential. This division forces roles on students, ones they only partially play. As a teacher, I found it essential to maladjust to dichotomies like these and refuse to allow them to enter into my thoughts or vocabulary. This maladjustment, combined with a crise de coeur, inadvertently led me to become involved in the deaf power movement in 1966, four years after I had begun teaching.
I was in graduate school at the time, and it was possible for me to take courses while continuing my work with youngsters in the community where I had previously taught. One of the classes I took, called "Natural Language for the Deaf,'' advocated a holistic though oralist approach to the education of deaf children. The class was taught by a wonderful woman, whose life was dedicated to the enrichment of learning among deaf youngsters and whose educational philosophy centered on the idea that deaf children will learn to speak best if they are in an informal, conversational situation in which reading, writing, and speaking are integrated.
One day toward the middle of the semester, an 8- or 9-year-old girl came to class to demonstrate the effectiveness of this method. Something in my heart responded to her dignity and intensity. When she began to speak to the class about her school, I couldn't understand anything she said. She strained and struggled, but what came out was something that resembled, but was not quite, English. Her face was wracked with tension, and I assumed she was closely listening to her own voice to be sure what she was saying was correct. Suddenly, I realized she couldn't hear herself, couldn't make corrections, and couldn't hear our responses, either. Until that moment, I had never imagined myself in a world without sound.
Something was wrong here. This girl was obviously intelligent and sensitive--her eyes and gestures made that clear. She was in pain. And she was the best example the school had to show for its attempts at getting deaf youngsters to speak. Something was wrong, not with her but with the educational regime she was living under. It was a situation that begged for maladjustment, that reminded me of the frustration I felt at being told not to speak Spanish in my classroom.
I decided to visit the school the young girl attended. Even before entering the school, it was impossible not to notice that one was in a sign-language environment. Students getting off the buses or coming out of the subway station were all signing. Young children on the playground were signing. Older ones taking a last puff on their cigarettes or just standing around flirting and gossiping were using sign language. The prohibition on signs began once youngsters were inside; it obviously did not extend into their lives outside of school. Before visiting even one class, it was clear that the prohibition of signs in deaf education indicated deep institutional and sociological problems.
This impression was confirmed when I learned that the teachers were all hearing individuals who did not know sign language; that students in this very caring and progressive environment still had to sit on their hands if they inadvertently signed in class; and that the achievement scores of the students at the school were lower than those at schools with a comparable non-deaf middle- and upper-class student body, indicating that some academic connections were not being made. Nevertheless, the staff was very enthusiastic about its work and proud of its success in enabling its students to master spoken English and achieve academically. To me, this meant that they had low expectations for their students, accepting barely comprehensible spoken English and below-gradelevel scores as excellent work. They had adjusted the school according to coordinates of educational research and philosophy and imposed their grid on the children.
My reading in the literature on the cognitive development of the deaf confirmed my suspicions. Throughout the United States, deaf children were evaluated by researchers who did not sign, were given test instruction in spoken English, and were required to read selections drawn entirely from the non-deaf world. The children were set up for failure and then labeled cognitively deficient. The system stayed in adjustment, and the children became abnormalized.
Fortunately, at that time, I stumbled upon a reference to William Stokoe's work on a signlanguage dictionary in Louie Fant Jr.'s book on the National Theater of the Deaf. Not one of the experts I consulted was familiar with any serious study of the language of signs other than one written about a hundred years before. Stokoe's early works, which he kindly sent me, were done in the fields of anthropology and sociology and not read by educators. They confirmed my suspicions that the language of signs was indeed a language with a syntax and grammar and that the entire research apparatus dealing with the education of the deaf was culturally biased and intellectually irresponsible.
I believe there were two underlying reasons for this: First, hearing people controlled the education of the deaf and did not bother to learn sign language; and second, this neglect of sign language was reinforced by the predominantly non-deaf parents of deaf children. (There had been a rubella epidemic in the late '50s and early '60s that increased the population of school-age deaf children at the time I was writing the paper.) The parents did not want their children to sign and become socially identified as deaf. They wanted their children to adjust to the hearing world. They wanted their children to talk, to be "normal,'' and educators tried to give them what they wanted even though it was impossible. The consequence was lack of communication and often bitter alienation between non-deaf adults and their deaf children.
The most painful thing I discovered during these explorations was that many parents, by neglecting to learn sign language themselves, gave up the possibility of communicating with their children. Instead, often out of anxiety over their children's futures, they chose to turn their children over to educators who promised to get their children to speak. Social norming and linguistic adjustment became a barrier between parents and children, something that often happens to immigrant children today.
I wrote a graduate school paper on the language and education of the deaf, concluding that deaf children should be taught in sign language or bilingually and that the parents of deaf infants would be best served by learning to sign. A year later, the paper was published as the booklet Language and Education of the Deaf. The response was explosive. The Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf, one of the most powerful forces in the area of deaf education, attacked me as an irresponsible outsider who had no right to intrude into the field of deaf education. At the same time, I was invited to Washington, D.C., to speak about the subject at Gallaudet College (now Gallaudet University), the nation's major institution of higher education for deaf people, and to do a summer program at Kendall Green, the elementary school on the Gallaudet campus.
At dinner before the speech, my wife, Judy, and I had time to communicate with faculty members from Gallaudet. Powrie Doctor, one of the most respected voices in the deaf community and a professor at Gallaudet, spoke to us, a rare event. He was profoundly deaf and had been forced to learn oral language at school. The humiliation of that experience was such that he refused to use it except in special circumstances, such as communicating with Judy, myself, and other nondeaf friends of the deaf community. He told us at dinner that he could lip-read and speak well enough to join the hearing world but that he had made the conscious decision, as a deaf adult, to maladjust to the hearing world. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists were heroes of his, and he had visions of a deaf power movement. What he wanted to do was organize from within the deaf community and build a movement to agitate for a society in which the deaf had control over their own education and made their own decisions about how they would relate to the hearing world. The reason the Bell Association was so outraged about my pamphlet, he informed me, was that once deaf adults understood themselves as victims of a dysfunctional system and became convinced of the intelligence they obviously had, the hearing would no longer be able to control their education and their lives.
Dr. Doctor (that was the way people signed his name) told me that he went through a painful period of personal and social struggle during his withdrawal from the world of the hearing. He had to discover ways of uncovering his strengths while undoing his internalization of the stigma of being "deaf and dumb'' and healing the injuries caused by being stared at when he was signing and misunderstood when he spoke. He said he decided not to adjust to being deaf.
Adjusting would have meant fitting into a world managed and controlled by hearing people--a world where he was considered damaged goods. Instead, he became part of the adult deaf world where he could live a fuller life while knowing how and choosing when to navigate in the hearing world. He also decided to teach and organize among deaf people and to help them learn how to manage the hearing world without being controlled by it.
One of his strategies was to show students how to turn stereotypes of deaf people on their heads--a form of what I've called creative maladjustment. For example, he encouraged his students to take trips on public transportation and observe the gestures and facial expressions of the hearing people around them. Many of these expressions and gestures have meaning in sign language, and Dr. Doctor demonstrated some of the silly, sometimes sexually suggestive or personally embarrassing things hearing people inadvertently sign just by moving their hands or letting an expression pass over their face.
Everyone else at the table cracked up at Dr. Doctor's imitations of hearing people inadvertently signing something silly or embarrassing. I felt excluded from a complex linguistic game. Dr. Doctor, after explaining the jokes, went on to describe the power of such role switching for some of his students. It taught them that they could observe as well as be observed, that stigma was socially constructed, and that they could take a stance toward the hearing world that would not make them feel inferior. Creative maladjustment was one of the tools he used to help his students learn to free themselves from the rage of being under the gaze and control of the hearing world. His goal was to build a community of the deaf that affirmed sign language and was not burdened by the linguistic ignorance and prejudices of the hearing world.
Dr. Doctor was a major inspiration for the deaf power movement, and I'm sure that, more than 10 years later, when students at Gallaudet walked out of classes, demanding a deaf president for the college (a battle they won), he must have been laughing in whatever heaven there is for the creatively maladjusted.
The publisher of Language and Education of the Deaf received dozens of letters responding in particular to my advocacy of sign language in schools. Some questioned my credentials to write about deaf education. Others called for a deaf power movement. A few were from hearing parents who thanked me for giving them the courage to learn sign language. It opened up a world of communication with their deaf children, they wrote, whereas before there had been only silence and grief.
I like to think I had some small part in the deaf power movement, which has succeeded in changing many of the stereotypes about the intellectual and linguistic capacities of deaf people and has permanently rid the "dumb'' from "deaf and dumb.'' I have not had much to do with the education of the deaf since 1968, but the idea has stayed with me that the way students behave is as much a consequence of the system in which they are required to learn as anything within themselves, their families, communities, and cultures. The task of helping my students figure out how to creatively maladjust to dysfunctional systems of living and learning has become a significant part of my work as an educator.
In fact, I can imagine classes in creative maladjustment at teacher education institutions, for without teachers who are willing to take the risks on creative maladjustment, public education will continue to fail or be dismantled and privatized.
Recently, I found myself trying to provoke my students into adopting precisely that stance toward their future work. I was teaching an undergraduate class, entitled "Introduction to Education,'' at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn. This was the first class in the sequence for prospective teachers, and my students were prospective elementary or secondary school teachers. The first writing assignment I gave the class was to describe a very good or very bad learning experience they had had. Half of the papers described good experiences, the others horrible ones.
The "good'' learning experiences involved some teacher who had gone out of her or his way to support, challenge, befriend, or encourage the student as an individual. These teachers broke through the impersonality that was the daily round of my students' lives in school and paid attention to their inner needs, aspirations, and problems. The "bad'' experiences all dealt with humiliation, with teachers picking out and putting down students for getting things wrong or not understanding what was being taught.
In class discussion, it came out that almost all of the students in my class were thinking about becoming public school teachers either to give their students the gifts they had received from a kind teacher who had inspired them, or to protect them from what sociologist Edgar Freidenberg calls the "ritual humiliations of schooling'' and the consequent feelings of stupidity and shame.
As a result of my students' responses, I decided to spend the first two weeks of class speculating on personalized education and strategies for the elimination of humiliation in the classroom. I wanted to help the students articulate their own philosophies of education before introducing them to other ideas that might broaden their concept of what education might be. However, most of the students found these discussions boring and wanted me to tell them what textbook to read, what the schedule of assignments was, and how my grading system compared with that of the professor who usually taught the class. Above all, they wanted predictability, regularity, and class rankings. They had been wellschooled though not necessarily well-educated.
Almost all of the members of the class resisted my attempts to set an analytic and personalized context for their future teaching. A number of them had already obtained last year's texts, tests, and answers from friends. They had "scoped'' out the course beforehand and found that, with a little work, they could score an A. This was a relief in their busy academic schedules. However, they didn't know that they would have a professor with different goals and outcomes in mind, and they resented it.
The students wanted to know what the right answers were, and I wanted to talk about the questions. There was a period of two weeks where the class was a dismal place. The resistance to what I was doing was palpable, and I spent hours worrying about how to reach the students without giving in to their desire for status quo education. Despite the stories they told in their papers, they had not thought much about the web that ties humiliation, grading, and closed questioning into a system of depersonalized education. I was convinced that giving in to their desires for textbooks, tests, and lectures would not help them become the teachers they dreamed of being.
It was time to introduce creative maladjustment into the classroom, and I found a way to do it at the checkout stand of Rainbow Supermarket in St. Paul. I have always been intrigued by gossip and scandal newspapers, especially those that trade in absurd claims. There is a perverse intelligence at work in the creation of headlines such as "Survivors of Titanic Found Picnicking on Iceberg,'' "Hitler Runs Delicatessen in Buenos Aires,'' and "Mink Coat Eats Owner.'' One night, while I was worrying about the lack of progress in my class, I saw the following headline: "Baby Boy Born With a Wooden Leg.'' I read the accompanying article and decided to integrate it into my curriculum. I bought the paper and shared the article with my class. Their assignment for the week was to get a copy of the paper, read the article, and write a threepage paper that would substantiate or deny its claims.
The students, to my thorough astonishment, took me perfectly seriously and behaved as if I had given them another essay by Piaget to analyze. It was a tribute to the effectiveness of the current educational system that any nonsense handed out by an authority figure would be taken seriously. The students' responses were equally surprising. Some contained serious arguments about whether a baby could actually be born with a peg leg. Others were discussions of reincarnation. A few tried to make logical arguments about why the article couldn't possibly be true, while two claimed that it had to be true because scientists and a doctor were cited.
No one came right out and said they thought I was putting them on with the assignment. The class discussion was quite different than usual. I noticed puzzlement and the kind of emotional stress that often leads to productive thinking. What is this crazy man asking us to do?
I was breaking the pattern, provoking questions, having them read an article from a paper they at first claimed they had never read but later on admitted they looked at in the supermarket. They were scared by the point I was making about authority and intelligence, and by the mode of question-posing and creative maladjustment that I was introducing as an alternative to right answers.
I realized that in this context it would be very easy to humiliate the class, to show them up as being silly, which was the opposite of my intent. Instead of dealing directly with their responses, I decided to raise the issue of the doctor and the scientists referred to in the article. Who were they? How did one judge their authority or know if they even existed? Can print lie? When and why? Over the next few days, we had discussions about how to evaluate the claims made by experts, books, journals, and the media.
The theme evolved into a consideration of how to develop trust in one's own mind, judgment, and experience. And then I turned to the tension between unquestioned acceptance of authority and creative maladjustment and to its educational implications. The ability to break patterns and pose new questions is as important as the ability to answer questions other people set for you. This is as true for teachers who care about their students as it is for the students themselves. It requires the courage to create a bold disruption of routines of thought and practice and implies a healthy love of turning the world upside down--which is very difficult in an academic situation driven by grades.
A central teaching skill consists of detecting and analyzing dysfunctional patterns of obedience and learning and developing strategies to negate them. It means that teachers have to become sophisticated pattern detectives and sleuth out ways in which the practices they have been taught--or have inherited-- inhibit learning.
Unfortunately, the momentum of educational research and the attempt to turn education into a single, predictable, and controllable system with national standards and national tests pulls in the opposite direction. Teaching well is a militant activity that requires a belief in children's strengths and intelligence no matter how poorly they may function under the regimens imposed upon them. It requires understanding student failure as system failure, especially when it encompasses the majority of students in a class, school, or school system. It also means stepping back and seeing oneself as a part of a dysfunctional system and developing the courage to maladjust rather than adjust oneself to much of current educational practice. This means seeing oneself as a worker in a large system run amok and giving up the need to defend the system to yourself or in public. And, in the service of one's students, it might even involve risking one's job and career. There are limits to creative maladjustment within the system, and they sometimes drive one to act, in the service of public education, from outside the system. But it is possible to defend public education without having to defend the public schools as they currently exist.
Recently, I taught a graduate school teacher education class called "Using Words Well.'' The class, for practicing teachers, was predicated on the idea that young people need the opportunity to speak about ideas and experience with each other rather than constantly be asked to respond to set questions. Toward the end of the class, we had an intense discussion about ways in which time can be found in the classroom for students to learn how to speak well and intelligently. Most of the teachers said there was no way they could fit in open-ended conversation because they were being held to student time on task and learning outcomes--that is, to working at measurable tasks using controlled materials without a moment for thought, reflection, or discussion. The net in which teachers and students had been caught was of a very fine mesh. There were no spaces available for the free flow of ideas and stories. The pattern of life in their classrooms inhibited the development of their students and quieted their own enthusiasm for teaching. The last part of the class was devoted to ways of breaking out of the net, ways of sneaking in love of language and the joy of communication.
"Baby Boy Born With a Wooden Leg''--the use of absurdity with a straight face--was foreign to these teachers' styles and classroom personalities. We had to figure out other ways to help them break the patterns. Teachers are rarely encouraged in an educational setting to speculate on what is absurd in their own work. That would be unprofessional. But we were nonprofessional with joy.
The teachers in the class came up with their own strategies for pattern-breaking in the classroom. One teacher said she would not grade the most important paper of the year but ask for revisions instead. Another decided that the reward for finishing assignments would not be time off but time on--that is, she would allow students to get into issue discussion groups and mural projects. A third decided that half of all formal class assignments could be fulfilled by writing ungraded novels and poetry instead. And all came up with a commitment to talk for at least 15 minutes a day about something happening in the world or something of a sensitive nature that was on the students' minds.
One member of the class said all of these proposals were steps into sanity. His district had been bombarded with outcome-based learning, alternative and standard assessments, national standards in all subjects, and other such nonsense. He was ready to fight back but needed a first step into maladjustment--that is, working specifically and consciously on breaking sanctioned though dysfunctional patterns of learning. He said he was going to come to school early one day, pile up all of the chairs and desks, and push them in the corner. Then, when the students came, he would begin class as if nothing unusual had happened and leave it to the students to respond. He did it a few weeks later and told me that he was probably the most nervous person in the room but that once one of the students asked what was going on, there was an animated discussion of his actions and a permanent reorganization of the room.
This is not a small thing. It is a powerful first lesson in breaking the pattern for both students and teacher. It provides a sense that it is possible to go beyond what authorities tell you to do and that you can cross boundaries and create new forms of association. However, it is a private act performed behind closed classroom doors. The next steps in creative maladjustment are more difficult. They involve reaching out to other teachers and to the community the school serves, engaging others in the struggle to create decent and effective schools, becoming a leader in your own school and community, and taking responsibility for that role.
There are a number of specific things people within and outside of public education can do in defense of public education. One essential step is to seek out and find good practice--schools or classrooms that work within the public schools. As educators we must articulate and defend what we consider to be good practice. This is difficult when you are part of a system that has produced so much failure. Nevertheless, there are good examples of public education that works and books that document them.
Create a library of good practice for yourself and your school. One form of creative maladjustment is to be literate and knowledgeable about what is going on in public education throughout the country and to share that knowledge with teachers' organizations and the community.
In addition, it is our responsibility as educators to examine all of the categories of educational stigma and to stand against anything that damages our students or limits their life possibilities. The category of "at risk,'' for example, though applied to individual children, is a form of social stigmatization that is often difficult to distinguish from racism and class bias.
It is hard to find a clear definition of "at risk'' or of "at-risk behavior.'' The clearest definition I've seen appears in the book AtRisk: Low-Achieving Students in the Classroom, by Judy Brown Lehr and Hazel Wiggins Harris. The authors admit at the very beginning of chapter one that "a review of the literature does not indicate a published definition of the at-risk, low-achieving student.'' Then they go on to give a list of possible labels for the "atrisk, low-achieving student.'' Here are some of the labels they come up with:
...disadvantaged, culturally deprived, underachiever, nonachiever, low ability, slow learner, less able, low socioeconomic status, language-impaired, dropout- prone, alienated, marginal, disenfranchised, impoverished, underprivileged, low-performing, and remedial.
The authors then go on to list characteristics that can be used to identify students at risk (all of which need not be present, they tell us, in order to identify an at-risk student):
...academic difficulties, lack of structure (disorganized), inattentiveness, distractibility, short attention span, low self-esteem, health problems, excessive absenteeism, dependence, discipline problem, narrow range of interest, lack of social skills, inability to face pressure, fear of failure (feels threatened by learning), and lack of motivation.
The whole question of identifying "at-risk'' students is itself risky business. To identify children as "at risk'' is to pick them out for special treatment not for what they have done but for what they might do. A child who is merely doing poorly in school is not necessarily at risk. Nor is a child who has a strong will and a sense of cultural pride and self-respect that she or he feels is violated by the circumstances of schooling.
What makes a child at risk? What is the hidden agenda of the people who have manufactured the "at-risk'' category? What are at-risk children at risk of doing? In plain language, at-risk children are at risk of turning the poverty and prejudice they experience against society rather than learning how to conform and take their "proper'' place. The children are maladjusting, and it is their teachers' role to make that maladjustment functional and creative rather than to suppress it.
One powerful way for educators to creatively maladjust is to repudiate all categories and assume responsibility for changing their practice until it works for the children they have previously been unable to serve. Another is to advocate genuine educational choice within the public schools and to demand that teachers, parents, and other groups of educators should have the right to create small schools within the context of large public school systems, with the freedom and resources to operate effectively. There are risks in becoming creatively maladjusted. You might get fired or find projects you have nurtured into existence destroyed by a threatened bureaucracy or conservative school board. You might find yourself under pressure at school and at home to stop making trouble and feel like giving in to the temptation to readjust and become silent. The choice of when, where, how, and whether to maladjust is both moral and strategic, and though it has social and educational consequences, it is fundamentally personal and private.
For those of us who choose to remake the schools and reaffirm the need for equity, decency, creativity, and openness within public education, walking the line between survival and moral action is a constant and often unnerving challenge. We have to think about being part of an opposition within the system and be articulate and explicit in that role. We have to reach out and develop allies and not be afraid to encounter and confront school boards, administrators, and our own unions with clear positions on educational issues backed by first-rate practice. And we must remember and affirm what we often tell our students: that we can become the people we would like to be, that it is necessary to live with hope, and that it is possible to create a decent life and a decent world.